Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Without a doubt, the most prominent and well-known trick that Alfred Hitchcock played on his audience occurred in “Psycho.”  Just about every scene, every shot of the first third of that movie followed Janet Leigh, in the role of a conflicted woman with stolen money.  Forty or so minutes in, Janet Leigh, the star, is dead and we’re left to follow the plight of an awkward young motel owner with a lot of mother issues.  It’s a complete 360 on Hitchcock’s part, and the utter shock and audacity of it was absolutely brilliant.  “Rebecca,” Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, has another 360˚ turn and another trick up Hitch’s sleeve, only this one is much less pronounced and more buried, so that it makes itself known gradually, and in stages.  What begins as a charming romance becomes a surreal, expressionistic mystery, without one particular scene where you can pinpoint that change.  Hitchcock takes his time here, perhaps more so than in any other of his movies, and yes “Rebecca” feels a little too long at two hours (longer than many of his other movies, actually), but it is much better for that slow pace, and what results is a film both economical in telling a story and absolutely hypnotic in style: a masterpiece that must be considered alongside Hitchcock’s best.

That change I mention comes in a couple of ways, one of them the more obvious, and that’s the overall style and mood.  For what I would say is the first fourth to third of the movie, what we see is a bright, cheerful romance as rich widower Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) courts the young companion/assistant (Joan Fontaine) of a rich brute of a woman.  The romance and eventual proposal are rushed, almost comically so with Max’s gruff but caring treatment of the shy young lady.  Much of it takes place outside, but even inside that hotel the rooms are brightly lit, the beautiful Joan Fontaine is lit even brighter, and you get the feel of a cute courtship and the makigns of a light romantic flick.

And then the newlyweds arrive at Max’s immense estate Manderlay, and that’s when things start to get…a little weird.  At first, we’re as overwhelmed over the sheer size of the place and the abundance of servants as the new Mrs. de Winter is.  Hell, a modest, middle-of-the-road girl suddenly thrust into this life of complete excess and untold riches, it’s no surprise she’s basically swallowed by her surroundings and you can just feel the discomfort pouring out of her.  But it’s not just the house and the lifestyle that swallow the blushing bride, but something…else.  That something, of course, is the undying memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, that haunts the house and every person and thing in it.  And the way this memory gradually makes itself known is just an ingenious touch by the story and by Hitchcock’s direction.  Even the first few scenes in Manderlay are sweet enough, as the new Mrs. de Winter tries so desperately to fit in, hobnobbing it with Max’s acquaintances and writing correspondences in Rebecca’s old study, so you still empathize with or even pity her.  But then consider how this mansion begins to feel more and more ominous, never losing its sense of physical immensity but still feels more and more imposing, as if constricting itself around the helpless young woman.  There’s that first night we see in the mansion, as Mrs. de Winter is led through the dark hallway by head servant Mrs. Danvers.  Hitchcock’s proven time and time again to be an extraordinary artist with the camera, but maybe never more so than here.  Lit only by a candle on a dark and stormy night, the walls of this suddenly foreboding house reflect the falling rain outside, as if the ceilings themselves are collapsing in on the overwhelmed Mrs. de Winter.  And then comes an absolutely fascinating shot, as Mrs. Danvers turns and walks away, to reveal the sudden image of Jasper the little dog, lying in wait in front of Rebecca’s old bedroom.  A cute dog, but an ominous one, with the fur black as night, guarding that door like Cerberus would guard the river Styx.  It’s as if that dog and the silhouette of the rain are Rebecca herself, taunting the new Mrs. de Winter with her mere spirit and memory, never to leave.

The not-so-sudden change of pace that “Rebecca” undergoes puts some fascinating questions into your head.  Why does Max fall into sudden spells of anger with his new bride?  Just what did happen to Rebecca on that boat that night years before?  Why does just about every servant walk on eggshells for no apparent reason?  All great questions, but none more compelling than those surrounding the ice queen herself, Mrs. Danvers.  You can have your Nurse Ratched or just about any other villainess in the movies, because I’ll take Mrs. Danvers as the most threatening, the creepiest, and the most subversively evil.  Her demeanor stays ice cold and her facial expression never changes from that soulless, expressionless look, even as she clearly taunts the new Mrs. de Winter towards suicide.  This strange, strange woman clearly had some kind of obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and thank god we never find out just what the extent of that relationship was.  Sexual tension was something Hitchcock was good at (Norman Bates, anyone?), and this is one more classic example of that inappropriate quasi-sexual fixation that’s never overtly mentioned, but you know is there.  Notice as she shows the new Mrs. de Winter around Rebecca’s old room: so spacious and bright once the immense shades are drawn open, yet still filled with that unmistakable aura of the dead woman.  Mrs. Danvers handles Rebecca’s old clothing, the furniture, even the hairbrush as she mimes combing the new Mrs. de Winter’s hair, with no facial emotion or vocal inflection whatsoever, and yet with a kind of obsession and “love” that’s absolutely terrifying.  Whether she’s fawning over these trinkets out of love for Rebecca or to taunt her replacement (and I think she’s doing both), that face never changes.  As the memory of Rebecca ingratiates itself in the proceedings of the film, whether through decreasing the lighting or representing itself through the rain or immense sterility of the mansion or even the dog, no representation of Rebecca’s taunting spirit looms more immense than that one servant, small in stature yet immense in terrifying mystery.

I mentioned that the gradual shift from jolly little romantic romp to eerie mystery tale comes in a couple of ways, and that other way comes in our main characters.  At the start, Max de Winter is completely composed, stands tall, is charming in that rich gruff kind of way, and has the talk and manner of a man who knows he’s rich and important.  As his future wife, Joan Fontaine is shy, slumps, never seems to look this dashing man in the eye, and is quite simply overwhelmed by her new lifestyle.  But then, like the overall mood around them, these people change.  In fact, they basically switch roles.  After the truth about Rebecca’s demise is revealed (in a dialogue-driven scene of brilliant simplicity, I might add), Max becomes the weakling: panicky, unsure of himself and unable to even make the simplest of decisions for his own self-preservation.  On the other hand, his originally timid wife now becomes a very strong presence, maintaining her husband’s sanity, taking the initiative to gain the upper hand on Mrs. Danvers, and even becoming something of the domineering spouse her new husband once was.  It’s her transformation that’s especially compelling, which is why she has to be one of Hitchcock’s most fascinating female protagonists.  And yet, I was shocked, SHOCKED, to find out AFTERWARDS that she’s never even referred to by first name.  IMDB simply lists Joan Fontaine as “The Second Mrs. de Winter,” and the fact that I didn’t notice for a second that she was never referred to by names other than, say, “darling” speaks worlds of this character.  As the shy and not-wealthy newlywed, her unease in this new immense setting is our unease, her view of the perfect husband and imposing servant becomes our view of the perfect husband and imposing servant.  It makes sense that the first we see of Max is his contemplating throwing himself over a cliff to his death, but from her point of view.  Every moment we see of Mrs. Danvers is from her (Mrs. de Winter’s) point of view, so that Mrs. Danvers isn’t a servant, but a gliding specter of death.  EVERYTHING is from her point of view, so we’re her.  Turns out, she doesn’t need a name.

As compelling a character as “the new Mrs. de Winter” is, leave it to someone like Hitchcock, he of the very well-chronicled woman issues, to make the most memorable and fascinating female character of the film and perhaps his career one who we never see.  The mere memory of Rebecca hangs over Max, his new wife, Mrs. Danvers, the other servants, and even the cold mansion itself, like a puppeteer.  Was she beautiful?  Kindly?  A tyrant?  We never really know, only get feelings of this dead woman through the unreliable memories and obsessions of just about everybody, so that she’s both a tabula rasa and the conception of woman we all envision in our minds.  Consider Hitchcock’s unrivaled masterpiece “Vertigo,” who’s female protagonist, Madeleine, is seen throughout much of that film’s first half from the point of view of detective Scotty Ferguson.  She never speaks, has a face and hair and clothing far too perfect for any woman who can be deemed “human” and, other than one initial close-up, is always seen from afar, from Scotty’s point of view as he trails her in secret.  She is the embodiment of the perfect woman (in body at least), to the point that what’s inside becomes irrelevant to Scotty.  

And now here’s Rebecca, who’s like the next step above Madeleine in being that all-powerful presence of the society-induced moniker of woman, and she’s not even there in body.  Every person and event in this film revolves around this dead woman of mystery, and our awareness of that presence grows gradually until that sudden explosion of revelations in that boathouse.  Rebecca’s presence doesn’t just hit us.  It festers, and lingers, and incubates.  It’s not a type of tension you can see in the sense that you can so easily point out in other Hitchcock movies like Psycho or Rear Window, but an emotionally resonant tension that you just know is there, but can’t quite put your finger on.  And much kudos to Hitchcock for using a style apart from his norm in later, grander films.  There’s few scenes of genuine “tension” or “suspense” in the most obvious sense of the word.  The entire movie is just…paced slowly, allowing scenes and places and people to linger.  There’s a lot of lingering instead of “suspense.”  Hitchcock takes his time in telling a story, so that that proverbial bomb under the table is ticking quieter than it ever has.  And by simply taking his time rather than inundating us with good old-fashioned suspense and pay-off, a mere memory-turned-restless spirit is allowed to provide “Rebecca” with all the suspense and unease it needs.


1 comment so far

  1. Pacze Moj on

    Might just be me, but the main part of your blog seems to have been pushed to the right by the “The List: 100 Favourite Movies” button…

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